The view from the top of Cooke’s Peak was impressive. The northern Chihuahuan Desert spread out below us like a relief map. We could clearly see the drainage patterns extending from the mountain far into the desert. To the south were the Florida Mountains near Deming, New Mexico, and we could easily see sharp-peaked mountains across the border in Mexico. To the north and northwest were the tumbled ranges of the the Gila Wilderness and the Black Range (where within a few months I would become the victim of an airplane crash).
Cold milk on a hot mountain
One of our climbing team had brought a thermos of cold milk, and we shared it on top. I cannot recall a drink that I enjoyed more at any place or any time. We stayed on top for only an hour or so; it had taken most of the morning to reach the summit, and we didn't want it to get dark before we got back to the car. We enjoyed the view, and clowned around for the camera.
We also rolled big rocks over the cliff on the eastern face of the peak. They would fall silently for long seconds before we heard them crash on the scree slope below. I suppose that was a dangerous, even childish activity, but I’m sure that we were the only humans on the mountain that day.
There is something about climbing a mountain that places one above the bulk of mankind, both physically and spiritually. I am confident that 99.99% percent of the residents of Southwestern New Mexico have never stood on the summit of Cooke's Peak. Perhaps some small percentage have dreamed of doing so, but lack of volition or other circumstances prevented the evolution of their dreams into action.
Climbing with Tenzing and Hillary
When I ascended Cooke's Peak I was part of a climbing team that included not only my friends, but (may I be so bold to suggest) the spirits of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first conquerors of Everest, and perhaps Edward Whymper who in 1865 became the world's first known mountaineer by climbing the Matterhorn just because it was there.
By climbing Cooke's Peak I joined a fraternity, and felt no less elation than have scores of others who have climbed mountains simply to reach the top. On the top of a mountain, you have reached two pinnacles, the one of hard rock where you stand, and the other a pinnacle in your soul. That was why that milk tasted so good, why the wind was so cool and fresh, and why it seemed that we had gained dominion over the earth spread out below us.
With a sense of well-earned entitlement, we added our names to the list in the rusty tobacco can we found under the cairn. Our last act at the summit was to add our own rocks to the cairn before beginning our descent.
Our return down the mountain was much quicker, but briefly disconcerting: we ran out of water soon after we began our descent, and I developed a new appreciation for the words of “Cool Water”:
Dan can you see that big, green tree / where the water's running free / and it's waiting there for you and me / water, cool, clear, water / cool, clear, water
However, shortly after the first buzzards began to circle high above our desiccated bodies, we found a small, cool spring in a rocky arroyo. That water was almost as good as the cold milk had been.
We got back to the car about 5 p.m. To say we were tired is understatement. Although I survived the experience unscathed, my hiking boots were virtually destroyed by the climb, the leather shredded by the sharp rocks. I'll bet Hillary's and Tenzing's boots were a real mess after they climbed Everest.